Netanyahu Corruption Trial Opens in Israel

JERUSALEM — It was a split-screen spectacle that encapsulated the confounding condition of Israel and its democracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in a Jerusalem court on Monday for the opening of the key, evidentiary phase of his corruption trial. Simultaneously, just two miles across town, representatives of his party were entreating the country’s president to task him with forming Israel’s next government.

For many here, the extraordinary convergence of events was an illustration of a political and constitutional malaise afflicting the nation that gets worse from year to year.

After four inconclusive elections in two years, Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and who denies wrongdoing, remains the most polarizing figure on the political stage. But he is also the leader of Israel’s largest party, which took the most seats in national elections last month.

a viable parliamentary majority, Israel appears stuck, unable to fully condone him or to remove him from the scene.

Now, experts said, the country’s democratic system is in the dock.

“Netanyahu and his supporters are not claiming his innocence but are attacking the very legitimacy of the trial and of the judicial system,” said Shlomo Avineri, professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.

“It is the right of the prime minister to come to court and plead not guilty,” he said. “But his defense is an attack on the legitimacy of the constitutional order.”

Israel was nearing an unprecedented constitutional crisis, he said, its depth underlined by the symbolism of the two processes unfolding in parallel.

The law gives President Reuven Rivlin a lot of leeway in whom he nominates to form a government. Mr. Rivlin, an old rival of Mr. Netanyahu, said he would act as all former presidents did and task whomever had the best chance of forming a government that would gain the confidence of the new Parliament.

The divisions were playing out noisily on Monday in the street outside the Jerusalem District Court, where dozens of protesters for and against Mr. Netanyahu had gathered at opposite sides of the courthouse.

Anti-corruption protesters held up placards listing the charges against the prime minister and chanted through megaphones. On a small stage, lawmakers from his conservative Likud party claimed that the legal process was being used to unseat Mr. Netanyahu after his opponents failed to do so through the ballot box.

“In the justice system, our choice of ballots is being assassinated,” declared Galit Distel Etebaryan, a newly elected Likud lawmaker.

The drama of the State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu revolves around three cases in which Mr. Netanyahu stands accused of trading official favors in exchange for gifts from wealthy tycoons. The gifts ranged from deliveries of expensive cigars and Champagne to the less tangible one of flattering coverage in leading news outlets.

The first case being tried, known as Case 4000, is the weightiest and the only one in which he has been charged with bribery.

According to the indictment, Mr. Netanyahu used his power as prime minister and communications minister at the time to aid Shaul Elovitch, a media tycoon and friend, in a business merger that profited Mr. Elovitch to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. In return, Walla, a leading Hebrew news site owned by Mr. Elovitch’s telecommunications company, provided the Netanyahu family with favorable coverage, particularly around election time.

The long-anticipated court session opened Monday with a lengthy speech by the chief prosecutor, Liat Ben-Ari. Mr. Netanyahu, who was required to be present, sat at the back of the courtroom.

Describing the case as “significant and grave,” Ms. Ben-Ari said that according to the indictment, Mr. Netanyahu, listed as “Defendant No. 1,” had “made improper use of the great governmental power entrusted to him,” to demand favors from the owners of media outlets to advance his personal affairs, including “his desire to be re-elected.”

Mr. Netanyahu left the court before the first witness, Ilan Yeshua, the former chief executive of Walla, took the stand. With more than 330 witnesses expected to appear, the trial could go on for years.

Mr. Yeshua described how he would receive instructions from go-betweens to post or highlight positive stories about Mr. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as well as items that cast his political rivals in a negative light.

He said he relayed the requests to the newsroom and described his daily and hourly struggles with editors as a “nightmare.”

While many Israelis viewed the trial as a triumph for the rule of law, critics said it was a distortion of justice, arguing that all politicians seek positive media coverage.

“Even if, after several years and tens of millions of shekels, the trial ends, as it should, with an acquittal for all parties, the country will bear the costs of this politicization of criminal law for many years to come,” Avi Bell, a professor of law and a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative leaning, Jerusalem-based think tank, said in a statement

The parallel political process underway at Mr. Rivlin’s official residence did little to dispel the sense that Israel remained trapped in a loop of political uncertainty and instability.

One after the other, delegations of the 13 parties elected to the Knesset came Monday to announce which candidate they endorsed to form the next government.

Mr. Netanyahu, whose Likud party won 30 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, was assured of 52 recommendations from his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies, well short of a majority of 61 but still more than any one of his opponents would likely muster.

The remaining 90 parliamentary seats are split between a dozen other parties. Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party came in second, with 17 seats. All the others resulted in wins of single digits.

The political stalemate has been compounded by Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to step aside while on trial and by the incoherence of the anti-Netanyahu camp, made up of parties with clashing agendas. Some have ruled out sitting in a government with others.

Many analysts believe the deadlock will lead to a fifth election, though some small parties that now hold a lot of power would risk elimination in any speedy return to the ballot box.

The sheer number of parties is a sign that “Israeli cohesion is unraveling,” said Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem.

“Israeli society is very fragmented,” he said. “The lack of cohesiveness in Israeli society will not disappear just because an election goes this way or that.”

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Israel Election Results Show Stalemate

TEL AVIV — Israel’s fourth election in two years has ended in another stalemate, with neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his opponents able to win a parliamentary majority, according to final results released Thursday by the Israeli election authority.

The results set the stage for weeks or even months of protracted coalition negotiations that many analysts expect may fail, prompting yet another election in late summer.

The results, though final, are not yet official since they have yet to be formally presented to the country’s largely ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin. That will happen next Wednesday, a spokesman for the central elections committee said.

But the count confirms earlier projections that Mr. Netanyahu’s alliance of right-wing and religious parties won 52 seats, nine short of an overall majority. A heterogeneous collection of centrist, left-wing, right-wing and Arab opposition parties won 57.

Islamist Arab party Raam, and the right-wing Yamina — won four and seven seats respectively and will be the focus of competing attempts by Mr. Netanyahu and the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, to form a coalition.

confronting vital questions about how to reform their election system and mend deep social divides.

After two elections in 2019, no one was able to piece together a majority coalition and form a government. After the 2020 contest, Mr. Netanyahu and some of his adversaries entered into an unwieldy coalition government that could not agree on a budget, forcing the latest election.

The continued stalemate leaves Mr. Netanyahu in power as a caretaker prime minister, even as he stands trial on corruption charges that he denies. The election upended the political map, dividing voters less by political ideology than by their attitude toward Mr. Netanyahu and his decision to run despite being under indictment.

Should he eventually form a formal coalition government, critics fear he will use his office to push through a law that would grant him legal immunity. Mr. Netanyahu rejects the claim, but has promised legal reforms that would limit the role of the Supreme Court.

Mr. Rivlin now takes center stage: He must consult with each of the 13 parties elected to Parliament before formally asking a political leader to try to form a majority coalition, an invitation that is likely to be made in 10 days.

Israeli presidents have typically offered this right to the leader of the largest party, which in this case would be Mr. Netanyahu, whose Likud party won 30 seats.

But Mr. Rivlin has the right to offer it to any lawmaker he deems best able to form a coalition, which in this case might be Mr. Lapid.

Whoever receives the invitation is expected to struggle to form a coalition. If Mr. Netanyahu persuades Raam to join his coalition, he could lose the support of a far-right alliance already in his bloc. That alliance, Religious Zionism, said Thursday that it would refuse to serve in a government supported by Raam.

Similarly, Mr. Lapid may struggle to persuade two right-wing parties within his alliance to sit not just with Raam, but with another Arab group called the Joint List.

And even if either leader somehow does form a coalition, it is expected to be so fragile and ideologically incoherent that it would struggle to last longer than a few months.

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.

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Arab Party Could Break Israel Election Deadlock

JERUSALEM — After a fourth Israeli election in two years appears to have ended in another stalemate, leaving many Israelis feeling trapped in an endless loop, there was at least one surprising result on Wednesday: An Arab political party has emerged as a potential kingmaker.

Even more surprising, the party was Raam, an Islamist group with roots in the same religious movement as Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip. For years, Raam was rarely interested in working with the Israeli leadership and, like most Arab parties, was ostracized by its Jewish counterparts.

But according to the latest vote count, Raam’s five seats hold the balance of power between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and the motley alliance of parties that seeks to end his 12 years in power. The vote tally is not yet final, and Raam has previously suggested it would only support a government from the outside.

Still, even the possibility of Raam playing a deciding role in the formation of a coalition government is making waves in Israel. An independent Arab party has never been part of an Israeli government before, although some Arab lawmakers supported Yitzhak Rabin’s government from the outside in the 1990s.

Mansour Abbas, the party’s leader, said in a television interview on Wednesday. In the past, he added, mainstream parties “were excluding us and we were excluding ourselves. Today, Raam is at least challenging the political system. It is saying, ‘Friends, we exist here.’”

The party is not in “anyone’s pocket,” he added. “I am not ruling out anyone but if someone rules us out, then we will of course rule him out.”

leave the country.

legislation that downgraded the status of the Arabic language and said that only Jews had the right to determine the nature of the Israeli state. In a previous election, Mr. Netanyahu warned of high Arab turnout as a threat to encourage his own supporters to vote.

Raam would also be cooperating with an alliance that includes far-right politicians who want to expel Arab citizens of Israel they deem “disloyal” to the Israeli state. One of those politicians, Itamar Ben Gvir, until recently hung in his home a picture of a Jewish extremist who murdered 29 Palestinian Muslims in a West Bank mosque in 1994.

But Mr. Abbas is prepared to consider these possible associations because he believes it is the only way for Arab citizens to secure government support in the fight against the central problems assailing the Arab community — gang violence, poverty and restrictions on their access to housing, land and planning permission.

In the past, “Arab politicians have been onlookers in the political process in Israel,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in February. Today, he added, “Arabs are looking for a real role in Israeli politics.”

The move would mark the culmination of a gradual process in which Arab parties and voters have grown incrementally more involved in the electoral process.

Raam, a Hebrew acronym that stands for the United Arab List, is affiliated with a branch of an Islamist movement that for years did not participate in Israeli elections. Raam was founded in 1996 after some members of that movement voted by a narrow margin to run for Parliament, an event that split the movement in two. The other branch, which Israel has outlawed and whose leader it has jailed, does not participate in elections.

the third-largest party in three recent Israeli elections, in a sign of the Arab minority’s growing political sway.

said if a right-wing government of Zionist parties was impossible to assemble, his party would consider “options that are currently undesirable but perhaps better than a fifth election.”

Raam’s newfound relevance constitutes “a historical moment,” said Basha’er Fahoum-Jayoussi, the co-chairwoman of the board of the Abraham Initiatives, a nongovernmental group that promotes equality between Arabs and Jews. “The Arab vote is not only being legitimized but the Palestinian-Arab community in Israel is being recognized as a political power with the ability to play an active and influential part in the political arena.”

The news was also greeted happily in the Negev desert, where dozens of Arab villages are threatened with demolition because they were built without authorization.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, has accused Mr. Abbas of assenting to a relationship with the Israeli state that frames Arabs as subjects who can be bought off, rather than as citizens with equal rights.

“Mansour Abbas is capable of accepting this,” Mr. Odeh said in an interview before the election. “But I will not.”

Irit Pazner Garshowitz and Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.

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Netanyahu’s Party Leads in Israel Elections

It was a message that resonated with many voters.

“Bibi is the only leader in this country in my eyes,” said Elad Shnezik, a 24-year-old foreign-exchange trader who voted for Likud in Tzur Hadassah, a suburb west of Jerusalem. “I have never seen anything bad in his actions. Everything he does, he does for the people.”

But turnout was the lowest since 2013, about 67 percent, as some voters appeared to tire of the relentless election cycle.

“The only one excited about going out to vote today is our dog, who is getting an extra walk this morning,” said Gideon Zehavi, 54, a psychologist from Rehovot in central Israel.

Turnout was projected to be particularly low among the Arab minority, according to some Arab pollsters. Some said they were deflated by a split within the main Arab political alliance, which reduced the collective power of Arab lawmakers.

“My honest opinion is it’s not worth wasting my time to vote for any of the parties,” said Amir Younes, 32, a restaurant worker in Jaffa. “We have been through this show many times before and the result is the same.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to position himself as a diplomatic trailblazer were dampened in the final days of the campaign, after a planned photo-opportunity in Abu Dhabi with the leadership of the United Arab Emirates fell through, amid Emirati frustration about being used as a prop in Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

And Mr. Netanyahu’s pandemic leadership brought him as much criticism as praise. Though he presided over a successful vaccine rollout, he was accused of playing politics with other aspects of the pandemic response. In January, he resisted giving significantly larger fines to people who broke antivirus measures, a policy that would have disproportionately affected ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Ultra-Orthodox parties form about a quarter of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing alliance, and he needs their support to form a coalition.

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Netanyahu’s Party Leads but Faces Obstacles to Forming Government

It was a message that resonated with many voters.

“Bibi is the only leader in this country in my eyes,” said Elad Shnezik, a 24-year-old foreign-exchange trader who voted for Likud in Tzur Hadassah, a suburb west of Jerusalem. “I have never seen anything bad in his actions. Everything he does, he does for the people.”

But turnout was the lowest since 2013, about 67 percent, as some voters appeared to tire of the relentless election cycle.

“The only one excited about going out to vote today is our dog, who is getting an extra walk this morning,” said Gideon Zehavi, 54, a psychologist from Rehovot in central Israel.

Turnout was projected to be particularly low among the Arab minority, according to some Arab pollsters. Some said they were deflated by a split within the main Arab political alliance, which reduced the collective power of Arab lawmakers.

“My honest opinion is it’s not worth wasting my time to vote for any of the parties,” said Amir Younes, 32, a restaurant worker in Jaffa. “We have been through this show many times before and the result is the same.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to position himself as a diplomatic trailblazer were dampened in the final days of the campaign, after a planned photo-opportunity in Abu Dhabi with the leadership of the United Arab Emirates fell through, amid Emirati frustration about being used as a prop in Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

And Mr. Netanyahu’s pandemic leadership brought him as much criticism as praise. Though he presided over a successful vaccine rollout, he was accused of playing politics with other aspects of the pandemic response. In January, he resisted giving significantly larger fines to people who broke antivirus measures, a policy that would have disproportionately affected ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Ultra-Orthodox parties form about a quarter of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing alliance, and he needs their support to form a coalition.

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Israel’s Budding Ties With U.A.E. Are Soured by Electioneering

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel presents himself as a global leader who is in a different league than his rivals — one who can keep Israel safe and promote its interests on the world stage. But strains in his relations with two important Arab allies, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, have dented that image in the fraught run-up to Israel’s do-over election.

Mr. Netanyahu’s personal ties with King Abdullah II of Jordan have long been frosty, even though their countries have had diplomatic relations for decades, and recently took a turn for the worse. And the Israeli leader’s efforts to capitalize on his new partnership with the United Arab Emirates ahead of the close-fought election on Tuesday have injected a sour note into the budding relationship between the two countries.

Senior Emirati officials sent clear signals over the past week that the Persian Gulf country would not be drawn into Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign for re-election, a rebuke that dented his much-vaunted foreign policy credentials.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has always portrayed himself as the only candidate who can protect Israel’s security and ensure its survival in what has mostly been a hostile region. He has touted peaceful relations with moderate Arab states, including Jordan and the Emirates, as crucial to defend Israel’s borders and as a buttress against Iranian ambitions in the region.

on trial on corruption charges.

The first signs of trouble came after plans for Mr. Netanyahu’s first open visit to the Emirates were canceled. Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached a landmark agreement last August to normalize their relations, the first step in a broader regional process that came to be known as the Abraham Accords and which was a signature foreign policy achievement of the Trump administration.

Mr. Netanyahu was supposed to fly to the Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi, on March 11 for a whirlwind meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the country’s de facto ruler. But the plan went awry amid a separate diplomatic spat with Jordan, one of the first Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

The day before the scheduled trip, a rare visit by the Jordanian crown prince to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — one of Islam’s holiest sites — was scuttled because of a disagreement between Jordan and Israel over security arrangements for the prince.

wrote on Twitter.

“The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever,” he added.

flooded into Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the country, despite pandemic restrictions. Now, analysts said, the honeymoon is over even though there has been no indication the normalization deal is in danger of collapse.

The relationship is essentially “on hold,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and Jordan.

Beyond Mr. Netanyahu’s electioneering, Mr. Eran said, the Emiratis were upset because as part of the normalization deal, Israel dropped its opposition to the Emiratis’ buying F-35 fighter jets and other advanced weaponry from the United States, but that transaction is now stalled and under review by the Biden administration.

In addition, he said, the Emirati leaders were concerned about what might happen after the election in Israel. Mr. Netanyahu has said his goal is to form a right-wing coalition with parties that put a priority on annexing West Bank territory in one way or another.

“They are not canceling the deal, but they don’t want more at this point,” Mr. Eran said of the Emiratis. “They want to see what the agenda of the new government will be.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s political opponents have seized upon the diplomatic debacle.

“Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s conduct in recent years has done significant damage to our relations with Jordan, causing Israel to lose considerable defensive, diplomatic and economic assets,” said Benny Gantz, the Israeli defense minister and a centrist political rival.

“I will personally work alongside the entire Israeli defense establishment to continue strengthening our relationship with Jordan,” he added, “while also deepening ties with other countries in the region.”

Mr. Netanyahu has said that four more countries are waiting to sign normalization agreements with Israel, without specifying which ones.

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Palestinians and Israelis Both Vote Soon. The Differences Are Stark.

Israeli leaders have paid almost no public attention to the Palestinian election — even though it might conceivably produce a united Palestinian leadership that could present a joint front in peace negotiations with Israel. Conversely, if the vote gives Hamas a bigger role within Palestinian governance, that could also affect Israel’s ability to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority — since Hamas does not recognize Israel and is considered a terrorist group by Israel and much of the international community.

By contrast, many Palestinians keep a close eye on Israeli politics, said Professor Abusada, who said it was “a sad thing” to see Israeli elections stuck in such a repetitive loop. But at least Israelis had the opportunity to vote so often, he said. “We haven’t been able to for a long time,” he added. “It makes us feel cynical about our own political system that we are not able to make any change.”

Within the confines of Palestinian politics, the prospect of an election has nevertheless shaken up some of the alliances and assumptions of the previously moribund Palestinian polity. For the first time in years, Palestinians can imagine the dormant Parliament buildings in Ramallah and Gaza City coming back to life. And Fatah, long the engine of the Palestinian national movement, now faces challenges not just from Hamas but from other parts of secular Palestinian society.

Confirmed or potential challengers include Salam Fayyad, a former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority; Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief who now lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates; and Nasser al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, and the nephew of Yasir Arafat, Mr. Abbas’s predecessor.

All three said they wanted to help found new alliances to compete against Fatah and Hamas, while allies of Marwan Barghouti, an influential Fatah militant jailed in Israel for five counts of murder, said he was considering it.

In Gaza, Hamas faces a threat from a generation of young Palestinians struggling to find work. The unemployment rate in Gaza hovers around 50 percent, largely because of the blockade that Israel has placed on the enclave in order to undermine Hamas’s military activity and rocket production. If Hamas were replaced by a unity government, some Gazans hope, the new leadership might defuse at least some of the tensions with Israel and improve living conditions.

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Will Israel’s Strong Vaccination Campaign Give Netanyahu an Election Edge?

He has presented himself as the only candidate who could have pulled off the deal with Pfizer to secure the early delivery of millions of vaccines, boasting of his personal appeals to Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, who, as a son of Holocaust survivors, had great affinity for Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu even posted a clip from South Park, the American animated sitcom, acknowledging Israel’s vaccination supremacy.

But experts said his claim that the virus was in the rearview mirror was overly optimistic.

Just months ago, Israel’s daily infection rates and death rates were among the worst in the world. By February, Israel was also leading the world in the number of lockdown days. About two million Israelis under 16 are so far unable to get vaccinated and about a million eligible citizens have so far chosen not to.

With much of the adult population now vaccinated, weekly infection rates have been dropping dramatically. But there are still more than a thousand new cases a day, an infection rate that, adjusted for population, remains higher than those of the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, Spain and others.

Health officials approved the reopening of businesses and leisure activities. But they sharply criticized a High Court decision this week lifting the quotas on airport arrivals, in part to allow Israeli citizens abroad to get back and vote.

“The High Court is taking responsibility for the risk of mutations entering Israel,” Yoav Kish, the deputy health minister, wrote on Twitter. “Good luck to us all.”

Critics blame the government for having failed to establish a reliable system to enforce quarantine for people entering the country, and health experts warn that they could bring in dangerous variants of the virus that are more resistant to the vaccine.

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Israel Has Its 4th National Election in 2 Years. Here’s Why.

JERUSALEM — Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday for the fourth time in two years, hoping to break a seemingly endless cycle of elections and a political deadlock that has left the country without a national budget during a pandemic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes Israel’s world-leading vaccination program, which has helped the country emerge in recent days into something approaching normality, will give him and his right-wing allies an edge and the stable majority that proved elusive in three earlier rounds of elections.

But Mr. Netanyahu, prime minister since 2009, is running for re-election while standing trial on corruption charges — a dynamic that opposition parties hope will prompt voters to finally push him out of office.

In reality, though, polls show that neither bloc has a clear route to a majority, leaving many Israelis bracing for another inconclusive result, and a possible fifth election later in the year.

Parliament to dissolve, forcing a new election, though for now the government remains in place.

than by whether they are for or against Mr. Netanyahu.

a key constituency in this election campaign.

In a sign of how the political map has changed, two of Mr. Netanyahu’s principal challengers in this election cycle are also right-wingers. Gideon Saar is a former interior minister for Mr. Netanyahu’s party and Naftali Bennett is Mr. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff.

The third leading challenger is Yair Lapid, a centrist former broadcast journalist whose party is mounting the strongest challenge to Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Gantz is no longer considered a viable threat to the prime minister. Polls suggest his party may even fail to win a seat, largely because of anger among his former supporters over his decision to form a unity government with Mr. Netanyahu in the first place, an arrangement he had promised not to join.

The Parliament, known in Hebrew as the Knesset, has 120 seats that are allocated on a proportional basis to parties that win more than 3.25 percent of the vote.

The system almost guarantees that no single party will win an outright majority, often giving tiny parties big influence in the deal-making that forms coalitions. The system allows for a broad range of voices in Parliament but forming stable coalitions under it is difficult.

It could take weeks or possibly months for a new government to be formed — if one can be formed — and at any point in the process, a majority of the Knesset could vote to dissolve again, forcing yet another election.

In the days after the election, Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, will give one lawmaker four weeks to try to form a coalition. He usually gives that mandate to the leader of the party that won the highest number of seats, which is likely to be Mr. Netanyahu. But he could grant it to another lawmaker, like Mr. Lapid, who he believes has a better chance at pulling together a viable coalition.

If that lawmaker’s efforts break down, the president can give a second candidate another four weeks to form a government. If that process also stutters, Parliament itself can nominate a third candidate to give it a go. And if he or she fails, Parliament dissolves and another election is called.

In the meantime, Mr. Netanyahu will remain caretaker prime minister. If somehow the deadlock continues until November, Mr. Gantz might still succeed him. The power-sharing deal the pair agreed to last April was enshrined into Israeli law, and stipulated that Mr. Gantz would become prime minister in November 2021.

In recent weeks, Israel has sent children back to school, reopened restaurants for in-house dining and allowed vaccinated people to attend concerts and theater performances.

Mr. Netanyahu hopes the success of Israel’s vaccine rollout, which has given a majority of Israelis at least one dose, will help propel him to victory.

But his pandemic record may also cost him. Some voters believe he politicized certain key decisions — for instance, capping some fines for flouting antivirus regulations at levels much lower than public health experts recommended.

Critics perceived this as a sop to ultra-Orthodox Israelis, some of whom flouted coronavirus restrictions on mass gatherings. Mr. Netanyahu will need the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties to remain in office after the election.

Voting by mail is not available in Israel. To prevent the spread of the virus, special polling stations are being set up for quarantined people and for Covid-19 patients.

No one is ruling it out. Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, is predicted to emerge as the largest party, with around 30 seats. But his allies may not win enough seats to give him a majority of 61.

And though current polling suggests the opposition parties will collectively win more than 61 seats, it’s unclear whether their profound ideological differences will allow them to come together.

The key player could be Mr. Bennett. Though he wants to replace Mr. Netanyahu, he has also not ruled out joining his government.

Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.

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